NOVEMBER 23, 2015
THERE IS NO SHORTAGE of books on the topic of suicide. A favorite of mine is Sylvia, the novelist Leonard Michaels’ fictionalized memoir of the suicide of his ex-wife. Describing a scene in which he learns she has slashed her wrists while he is at his mother’s, he writes, “In my frustration — refusing to be intimidated, yet feeling terrified — I became angry at my mother for detaining me as she packed food … I was ashamed and didn’t want her to know how Sylvia and I lived, but I didn’t want Sylvia to bleed to death.” Michaels observes Sylvia’s frightening struggle with depression and his own incoherent reaction to her decision, and examines the fear that, if only he could have done something different, the disaster would have been avoided. Many books on the subject strive for a similar intensity, emphasizing emotion and empathy above all.
Yet a few cast a colder eye, positioning themselves stoically outside all spheres of emotion so as to dryly report on the topic, carefully avoiding falling prey to purple prose or excess feeling. It is in this very far distance that Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide, by Marzio Barbagli, finds its point of vantage. Barbagli, a professor of sociology at the University of Bologna, has produced a dense bundle of facts, figures, and findings collected over 14 years of studying the act of self-killing. He surveys the country of suicide from a great height.
Barbagli’s book is meant to provide an update to one of the seminal texts of sociology: Émile Durkheim’s Suicide, first published in 1897. Barbagli is not a Durkheimian. He considers the widespread acceptance of Durkheim’s theories to be a function of his stylistic achievements, his clarity in explaining facts, and his overall authoritative tone, rather than the correctness of his arguments. Reading Suicide, Barbagli says, “readers have the impression of having come upon a milestone in scientific literature.” Reading Barbagli, we are meant to feel, the milestone has been moved.
Farewell to the World begins by breaking down what Barbagli considers to be the flaws in Durkheim’s original theory of suicide. In brief, Durkheim held that all suicides fall into one of four categories: egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic. All four types of suicide, according to Durkheim, were ultimately caused by a lack of social regulation and integration. In other words, suicide came about as a result of pathology, a fatal mismatch between an individual and environment. When Durkheim conducted his study of suicide toward the end of the 19th century, he was responding to a very particular set of cultural concerns. Europe had recently seen a sharp rise in voluntary deaths, leading many observers to fear for the welfare of society as a whole. Durkheim had personal motives as well: he wanted to legitimize sociology as an academic discipline. “The first led him to view suicide as a symptom of the ills of society,” Barbagli writes, “the second to explain it using only (some) sociological categories and to ignore the contribution of other human sciences.”
Unsatisfied with Durkheim’s pathology-based theory, Barbagli argues that the broader culture that surrounds an individual has more of an effect on their decision to commit suicide than any other factor. It’s not those who are mismatched to their cultures who commit suicide; it’s those who fit right in. In particular, Barbagli argues, Durkheim’s theory does not explain why, “over the past forty years, thousands of people … have sacrificed themselves for a collective cause, to help their own people and to fight their enemies.” To prove this point, he takes on the enormous task of sifting through the entire recorded history of humanity in order to examine changing cultural attitudes to suicide. Claiming that “social integration and regulation are … neither the only nor the most important causes of changing suicide rates over time and space,” he all but eliminates anomic suicide and fatalistic suicide from Durkheim’s original schema and adds two new categories: aggressive suicide and suicide as a weapon.
As might be expected from the addition of these categories, Barbagli focuses heavily on the rise of the suicide bomber. He began his research on Farewell to the World in 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and the ensuing media attention to the culture of Islamic jihad has clearly influenced his research. It is in discussing suicide bombers that Barbagli is at his most thorough. A graph shows a breathtaking spike in suicide missions from 1981 (one) to 2007 (608). This is placed alongside a passage that breaks down the cost-benefit ratio of these missions for the weak organizations that plan them. (One suicide mission could kill an average of 82-92 victims, as opposed to 3.3-6.9 during a terrorist or guerrilla attack.) Suicide, Barbagli makes clear, can be a way of claiming public attention, and lashing out at a culture that one feels oppressed by. Furthermore, it is, in many cases, not an individual act but a collective one, which involves multiple parties (terrorist training cells, collateral victims) in addition to the suicidal person himself.
Barbagli argues that Durkheim’s theory, by omitting individuals who commit suicide as revenge or to harm others, falls prey to a bias that took root during the era of colonialism. “Scholars have usually overlooked those acts motivated by these [aggressive] intentions, probably because they have always been extraneous to the cultural repertoire of Christian Europe and seemed peculiar and incomprehensible,” he writes. He divides his book into two sections — “In the West” and “In the East” — and argues that the aggressive and weaponized modes of self-killing (such as the spike in suicides among female sexual assault victims under the Yuan dynasty in China) dominate Eastern societies, while egoistical and altruistic suicides are more prominent in the West. This is due largely to the influence of Christianity, which centers on what is perhaps the most famous altruistic suicide in history of the world: the crucifixion of Jesus.
Barbagli is careful not to indict the Hindu and Islamic religions for promoting or condoning aggressive suicide, just as he does not judge Christianity for idealizing altruistic suicide. He is merely interested in examining the ways in which the value systems upheld by these religions support, justify, and explain such acts. These, he argues, are often deeply connected to the values of the culture. In particular, Barbagli notes, women feel compelled to die in both suicide missions and sati (the Hindu practice of self-immolation practiced by widows after the death of their husbands) because of a perceived loss of sexual dignity, linked to rape, divorce, or some other violation. Having lost their honor, they choose suicide to “try to regain it through martyrdom, sacrificing themselves for a greater cause.”
Farewell to the World will likely become a standard work on the sociology of suicide, if not for its provocative conclusions — it is nearly impossible to grasp any clear takeaways from so much disparate data over such a long period — then for its admirable thoroughness. Suicide is an infamously difficult subject to research, especially on the scale that Barbagli attempts here. “As one moves away from Europe and the last 150 years the path becomes narrower, often impassable, and the researcher has to overcome huge difficulties in order to find documents of any sort on suicide,” he writes. Still, he has made a valiant attempt. Farewell to the World is a work of quantitative sociology, which means it is full of data, a fact Barbagli occasionally feels the need to apologize for. “Book lovers are usually not great fans of statistics,” he observes, in a rare attempt to be stylish, about halfway through the book. “But if they happen to look at them, they would be struck to discover that women take their lives much less frequently than men in the West.”
It’s true that the density of statistics in Barbagli’s book can be overwhelming for the lay reader (or “book lover”). The breadth of information contained in a single paragraph — like the one on the decline in suicides in Britain between 1964 and 1975 as a result of homes switching to methane gas instead of coal, for instance — is often astounding. When discussing the rates of suicides in Asia, he presents statistics for spouses, singles, divorcees, and widows, not to mention males versus females, in the space of just two sentences: “Spouses kill themselves more frequently than bachelors or spinsters in China, and more than divorcees in Japan. In India, married persons take their own life more than bachelors, among the male population, and more than widows, among the female population.”
It is also — and this, of course, comes with the territory — a deeply depressing book. Working as a funeral director for the past decade, I have thought about death on a daily basis. Understanding those who wish to escape darkness and pain is familiar work for me. However, reading Barbagli’s numbing statistical overview, I was surprised, and discomfited to find myself considering aspects of self-killing I hadn’t fully considered. What to do, for instance, with the bleak knowledge that suicide rates were lower for the Jews put to work in Nazi death camps as compared to prisoners on death row? To understand why people chose to stay alive against all logic, I had to reconcile the ways in which moral order can be so turned upside down that suicide loses all meaning. In the words of a Jewish prisoner, “Dying was omnipresent, death vanished from sight.”
If you are a book lover like me, you look to words to change your perspective — or, still more urgently, to talk to you down. Farewell to the World won’t do this for you. More often, Barbagli’s words confuse and overwhelm, leaving you longing for a well-wrought phrase that draws a connection between your life and those of past sufferers. In place of comfort, you are asked to absorb the knowledge that when you willingly fall off a building you will ultimately fall into one of four categories, examined not for what you wanted but for what you did not get. The hard data show us that everything everywhere is driving us to go through with it. Harder still is to realize what’s pulling us back.